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FY 2023 Weapons Convictions Under Biden Continue At Record High Levels

Published Dec 11, 2023

Federal convictions for weapons convictions for FY 2023 ended with another record year, even exceeding predictions from earlier. The latest available data from the Justice Department show that federal prosecutors obtained 1,082 convictions in September. The 12-month total was 9,460 covering October 2022 through September 2023. Thus, convictions showed an accelerating pace during the last half of the fiscal year.

Prohibited firearms activity under Title 18 Section 922 accounted for 83 percent of convictions this year. The next two statutes accounting for the most weapons convictions were Title 18 Section 1951 (Hobbs Act) for the actual or attempted robbery or extortion affecting interstate or foreign commerce, and Title 21 Section 841 for prohibited drug activity. They each accounted for an additional 3 percent of all weapons convictions during FY 2023.

The lead federal investigative agency responsible for investigating weapons offenses is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to case-by-case records obtained from the Department of Justice by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) after lengthy and successful litigation under the Freedom of Information Act, ATF referrals accounted for 61 percent of weapons convictions.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations was responsible for another 16 percent of referrals that led to these convictions. In third place were referrals from state and local law enforcement agencies which accounted for another 9 percent. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security were the lead investigative agencies which accounted for many of the remaining convictions for federal weapons violations.

Trends in Weapons Prosecutions

Federal weapons convictions during FY 2023 were 21 percent higher than five years ago, and 41 percent higher than a decade ago.

However, convictions for federal weapons violations have undergone substantial change – both up and down – over the last three decades. Starting from a low of around 3,000 in FY 1998, they climbed to a high in FY 2005 of 9,200 before falling to a new low of just 6,000 a decade later in FY 2015. Thus, while the last two years have exceeded earlier records, they are only modestly above conviction levels during the previous highs in FY 2005-2006.

During the Trump administration, convictions reached 8,697 in FY 2019. They have climbed even further under President Biden. Convictions reached an all-time high last year (FY 2022) when they reached 9,559. This was the largest number in any single year since recording began. While FY 2023 is slightly lower than last year, the average number of convictions during the Biden administration has been consistently higher – averaging about 17 percent greater – than those during the Trump administration. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Criminal Weapons Convictions over the last 20 years

Most Active Federal Judicial Districts

Generally federal weapons prosecutions and convictions are not concentrated in districts with the largest urban centers. In fact, it is quite the opposite, as TRAC reported earlier in its March report. With the exception of the Eastern District of Missouri where St. Louis is located, which had both the highest number as well as the highest rate relative to its population size, other major metropolitan areas ranked towards the bottom. Justice Department's case-by-case records show that Miami (Florida South) ranked 55th out of the 90 federal judicial districts covering all states, New York South, where Manhattan is located, ranked 62nd, Chicago (Illinois North) ranked 83rd, and Los Angeles (California Central) ranked 88th.

In contrast, relative to their population size, the rate of criminal convictions for weapons offenses in the rest of the top five after Missouri East, were in rank order: New Mexico, Arkansas East (Little Rock), the Southern District of Alabama (Mobile), and Tennessee West (Memphis). Table 1 provides a list of the top 10 districts along with the number and rate of weapons convictions plus how these districts have ranked over time.

Table 1. Top Ten Judicial Districts for Federal Criminal Convictions for Weapons Offenses, FY 2023
Federal Judicial District FY 2023 Rankings
Rate* Number Rank 1 Yr Ago 5 Yrs Ago 10 Yrs Ago 20 Yrs Ago
Mo, E 166 484 1 1 3 17 9
N Mexico 127 269 2 8 22 5 34
Ark, E 120 196 3 2 29 33 59
Ala, S 116 100 4 5 1 2 4
Tenn, W 116 181 5 4 2 1 5
Iowa, N 103 137 6 3 5 19 25
Montana 91 100 7 7 4 20 16
Ala, M 85 101 8 23 8 52 56
S Dakota 85 75 9 6 15 26 58
W Virg, S 81 70 10 43 27 21 12
* Rate per million population.

While there is considerable month-to-month variability in federal districts judges sentencing the most weapons cases, during September 2023 – the latest month available – Judge Walter David Counts, III in the Western District of Texas (San Antonio) ranked first with 14 sentenced in weapons convictions. Judges Leonard T. Strand in the Northern District of Iowa (Cedar Rapids), Kenneth Davis Bell, Sr. in the Western District of North Carolina (Asheville) and James Paul Oetken in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) were tied for second with each sentencing 11 defendants for weapons convictions.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.